Thursday, June 29, 2006

Abortion in American Society

Last year, on my blog, I linked to an opinion piece written by Patricia Bauer in the Washington Post titled The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have. She argued that abortion in American society is not as much about underprivileged women who can't raise a child choosing out of necessity, but about overprivileged women choosing out of convenience or preference not to have (for example) a Down's Syndrome child.

A few months back on that blog, we had a rousing discussion about abortion in America, and one of the key questions was asked by Kevin:

"Why are most abortions performed? to save the mother's life? or due to rape or incest? or to prevent the 9 months of hardship and pain before giving the baby up for adoption? Are some reasons for abortions worse than others? If so, are we doing all we can to minimize the worst?"

Through that discussion we were able to find a few statistics, from the Alan Guttmacher Institute primarily, but nothing that seemed highly reliable.

Recently, though, Melissa Kearney, an economist with the Brookings Institution, performed an analysis of information from the Guttmacher Institute and arrived at some conclusions about the majority of abortions in America. I wish I could find the actual report on the Internet somewhere, but I can't. All I have at this point is a summary of it written by Susan Reimer in the Baltimore Sun titled Defying Stereotypes on Abortion.

Most abortions (70%) are performed on women in their 20's or early 30's, not teenagers. Most abortions are performed on women who have either had a previous abortion, or already have children... not young women still figuring out that sex has consequences. Most women who have abortions have some college education. Most (75%) are not living in poverty.

What motivates these women to have abortions? This question is important because we appear to have universal consensus that abortion should be rare. How do we get to the point where abortion is rare? We have to identify the felt needs that are causing women to choose abortions, and change those situations. Depending on the nature of the need, the change may need to be in external circumstances (alleviating poverty, for instance); the change may need to be through external regulation (making abortion less convenient, if it's a choice of pure convenience); the change may need to be through aggressive marketing and education. To reduce abortions, we must identify why people are choosing abortions and find a way to change the factors affecting their choice.

Based on this research, and the previous discussions on my blog, does anyone have specific suggestions of steps that could be taken to make abortion rare in America?

Note that I am avoiding the moral question here. We discussed that some previously, but when the moral question is raised it tends to derail (or endlessly sidetrack) discussion of practical considerations, so I'm particularly interested here in discussing concrete suggestions for reducing abortion in our society.

And yes, making at least some abortions illegal is a valid suggestion... but I'd like to hear it argued from a social standpoint, not a standpoint of moral abolutes, at least for now.

Suggestions, anyone?



Douglas_Coombs said...

thinking off the top of my head without the time to look things up (read that as feel free to correct me), i seem to remember abortion rates declining being linked to a good economy.

i wish i could figure out why most people choose to abort while only a fraction choose to carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption. the demand for babies by infertile couples in the US is huge. that particular aspect is particularly intrigueing to me because the difficulty and near impossibility of adopting an infant is part of what drives the ivf industry.

Mark Congdon said...


I expect many women (whether consciously or subconsciously) realize that if they carry their baby to term, they will become even more deeply emotionally attached to it than they are in the early stages of pregnancy, and it will be impossible for them to give it up. So, they try to take care of the problem before it becomes no longer just a problem to them.

Whether that is effective at reducing long-term guilt and sense of loss is a somewhat open question, but I expect it doesn't work as well as most women hope.


purple_kangaroo said...


Adoption carries its own problems and moral issues. The rate of adopted children and birth mothers ending up with regrets is pretty high, to my understanding. I think our current adoption system has some big flaws and needs some work.

A lot of women can't imagine "doing that to my baby" but somehow are able to justify an abortion. I think with adoption they know their baby would be out there somewhere, but they would have no way of knowing if it was okay or not, and it would know they'd given it away. With abortion, at least they know it's not alive and suffering somewhere because of their actions.

I certainly don't agree with that line of thinking, but I can somewhat understand it, especially for those who see abortion as preventing a baby rather than killing one.

grandmac said...

Maybe some focus needs to be placed on the cancer risk for mother's who have had abortions. If I am remembering right there is an increase in breast cancer and another kind of cancer. Anyone familiar with this fact?

Mark Congdon said...


I did a quick Google search for "abortion cancer", and saw no mention of anything other than breast cancer. There does seem to be significant debate about that link, however. From what I scanned, this USA Today news article seems to give the best overview.

Are you suggesting that our societal response to the abortion problem should be to warn women about the chance of getting cancer as a result of the abortion? If there is solid scientific evidence of a connection, that might be a reasonable thing to require of the medical community... but it doesn't seem like a very effective or helpful way to significantly reduce the number of abortions. A woman would have to be pretty ambivalent about whether to get an abortion or not before the possibility of future breast cancer would significantly affect her decision.


grandmac said...

It does look like the debate is controversial, but if it did end up being proven it would be a way to help discourage abortions in my mind. I think because of all the education about breast cancer that women (teens also) get that it would be something they would think about seriously.

Douglas_Coombs said...

Mark and Carol,

Yes, the abortion/cancer link is controversial, I spoke with one doctor who had conducted an extensive meta-analysis and concluded that there was definitely an increased risk among women who had an abortion before their first birth. There's a technical term for that, but my memory fails me.

In light of that, I find one of the risk factors for breast cancer to be particularly interesting. "a late age at the time of birth of her first full-term baby"

Whether or not the cancer risk is higher for someone who has had an abortion vs. someone who hasn't, this much is clear, the widespread use of contraception and abortion to delay child-bearing has greatly increased the breast cancer rates in western countries. Of course, the same could be said of women getting a college education and that's certainly a good thing.

There are other intesting links to breastfeeding duration and number of children published in the Lancet (article by Valerie Beral, (July 20, 2002) The Lancet, 360:187-95), but I've only read snippets of the article, so I probably shouldn't comment more.


Being Made said...

On the cancer issue--As the daughter of a Mother who died of Lung Cancer, I am hesitant to use the possible causes of any cancer politcally. Because of the heavy stigma associated with Lung Cancer being a smoker's disease, it is the most underfunded cancer despite it's being the cancer most likely to cause death in the U.S.

Breast cancer already has oodles of funding, no doubt (and thank goodness!), but I would hate to put ANY person diagnosed with cancer through the stigmatization and guilt that my mother and countless other Lung Cancer survivors go through.

It seems there could be many other more effective arguments that get to the heart of the matter rather than working from the side to deter women from having abortions.

Douglas_Coombs said...

"It seems there could be many other more effective arguments that get to the heart of the matter rather than working from the side to deter women from having abortions."

Are you saying that one shouldn't tell people not to smoke because it can cause lung cancer. People need to be made aware of the risks involved with certain behaviors. While this doesn't excuse people to treat others badly who have a certain disease, I think it's a great idea to warn others of health risks, especially when the disease can be fatal.